“Matilda said ‘Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable…”‘
The 23rd of November marks the 25th anniversary of Roald Dahl’s death. Few other writers have given as much to the collective imagination of the world than Dahl. What makes Dahl’s books so brilliant is they are infinitely imaginative, fantastical, deliciously dark and never patronising. Various directors have tried adapting his novels to varying levels of success, see below for the list of the top 10:
10. Four Rooms (1995)
Probably the most forgotten and negatively received adaption, Four Rooms is taken from Dahl’s’ adult work, featuring four shorts in the form of an anthology. The most bizarre section is directed by Tarantino and adapted from Dahl’s The Man From the South. Bruce Willis features heavily in the scene (although he is not in the credits) but even he and his striking facial hair cannot save it. It may not have been quite as unhinged and messy if Tarantino didn’t act in the scene as well. The best moment is Robert Rodriguez’s “Room 309” where utter mayhem breaks out by two children left on their own in the hotel room, think destruction, think fire, think alcohol and think stabbing. However all in all the film appears more like a vanity project for the indie filmmakers Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders and Alexandre Roxwell.
9. The BFG (1989)
In comparison to a modern day children’s film The BFG has a plodding pace and some of the songs are hit and miss. However for its time it was world class animation and its quirky (trippy) design stands out. The dream sequence is particularly good and the other giants convincingly scary, which is necessary, as the book itself is ‘possibly the sole kids’ tale in which an entire primary school is massacred, leaving behind only a pile of bone.’ The film is carried by voice star David Jason who brings real character to the BFG’s idiosyncratic tongue twisters. There is a new version of The BFG in production as we speak, being directed by Steven Spielberg. Scheduled to be released July 2016 it will be interesting to see what Spielberg adds to the story.
8. Danny, the Champion of the World (1989)
A charming low key film which comes across sweetly, this was apparently one of Dahl’s favourite adaptations. Jeremy Irons is suave and convincing as the heroic father and the entire film is lifted by the touching relationship between Danny and his father, helped by the fact that Danny was played by Irons’ actual son Sam. Set in the mid-1950s the film is a nostalgic backwards look at rural England and cosy little village life. The problem with the film is that it is all a little too small – the excitement and tension of the pheasant hunt that comes across in the book is lacking in this pleasant ramble.
7. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
This is the only book to be adapted twice (so far) and Tim Burton does seem like an ideal choice of director to re-imagine this twisted stylised fantasy. The art direction is next level and the use of digital effects (the squirrel scene for example) heightens the fantastical nature. Freddie Highmore as Charlie is far stronger than the previous Charlie and the shift of focus back to him instead of Willy Wonka stays truer to the original. Yet this film lacks the punch of the previous and this is mainly due to Willy Wonka. Johnny Depp is creepy and distant and the backstory about his dentist father seems superfluous, it feels plastic rather than charming.
6. James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Directed by Henry Selick (who is famous for The Nightmare Before Christmas), James and the Giant Peach is a visually arresting if uneven film. The first part of the film centers on James’ horrible treatment under his aunts and has a pantomime feel, but the film picks up when it goes into stop-motion as James starts his journey in the giant peach. The peach being dragged across the night sky by a flock of seagulls is just one of the great visual spectacles of the film. James’s creepy crawly friends are voiced expertly, Susan Sarandon as the Russian spider injects a nice dose of charm into the film. From a child’s perspective the film is enthralling, the dangerous rhino cloud terrifying and the fantastical adventure story gripping. But for the older viewer the film falls a bit flat, the characters feel underdeveloped, the storyline lacking and the move to and from stop-motion breaks the mood.
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox is an example of a director taking Dahl’s story and bringing his own distinctive style to create a great film in its own right. This marvellous story is brought to life with mesmerising imagery and infused with a top-notch Hollywood cast, Clooney works very well as the charming Mr Fox. The retro stop-animation characters adds an extra layer of charm; along with the physical slapstick the script is also full of more adult humour, such as Mr Fox’s existential crises. The film takes an American-style and often ironic detour from the book but if you can see it as a separate entity it is very enjoyable.
4. Esio Trot (2014)
If ever you are in need of a little lift watch this film. Premiered on New Year’s Days on BBC, this feel-good story about the weight of a pet tortoise (Alfie) and a burgeoning romance between two people in the later stages of life is raised into a brilliant piece of film by its two protagonists Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman. With seven Oscar nominations each, their nuanced and heart-wrenching portrayals of Dahl’s Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver means even the most cold hearted of viewers could not help but be warmed. This quintessentially British film (co-written by Love Actually’s Richard Curtis and narrated by James Corden) builds gently but clearly shows that sometimes slow and steady does win the race.
3. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is perhaps one of the most famous adaptations – no child can forget the garden of edible candy. It holds all of the components of a great childrens’ film: visually spectacular, imaginative story, dark undertones and lots of candy. Made in collaboration with the Quaker Oats Company so that they could launch their very own Wonka Bar, Dahl himself was not a fan of the final product. He disliked the switch of focus from Charlie Bucket to Willy Wonka, as seen in the title. Dahl also wanted Spike Milligan to play Willy Wonka but the studio and director went for Gene Wilder. Despite Dahl’s disagreement, Wilder is one of the best elements of the film, perfectly capturing the dark ambiguous side of Dahl’s writing as he teeters from creepy to eccentric to charming in one sentence. The very factory itself seems as dangerous as is it wonderful and the nasty fate of the rest of the contestants stays true to Dahl’s book.
2. The Witches (1990)
Director Nicolas Roeg and Jim Henson conjoined talent results in one of the best horror films for children. The story is captivating in itself; young boy Luke and his grandmother go on holiday and stumble upon a meeting of the witches, lead by the Head Witch, played by Anjelica Huston. Huston revels in this role and will strike the fear into the heart of any viewer (child and adult alike). In fact every witch is terrifying and the moment when they take off their mask still has the ability to shock. The witches’ plan of turning children into mice leads to some lovely scenes from mice level with towering furniture towers. It has a more Hollywood ending compared to that in the book, but although Dahl hated the change it makes the film more enjoyable.
1. Matilda (1996)
Matilda may not have the extreme flights of fantasy of other films but it is still magical and captures the imagination. Danny Devito (somewhat surprisingly) handles the book material deftly with the main difference being the American setting, but actually the American suburbs successfully portrays the monotonous small minded setting of the book. The script is quotably good with famous lines such as ‘I’m smart you’re dumb, I’m big you’re little, I’m right you’re wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it!’ Miss Trunchbull, played by Pam Ferris, seems to have charged right out from the pages of the book and her search for Matilda and Miss Honey around her house sends the heart racing. The soundtrack is also emotionally uplifting with Send Me on My Way by the Rusted Roots and Little Bitty Pretty One by Thurston Harris. This film appeals to anyone who has ever felt they don’t fit in and it does for the viewer what books do for Matilda:
“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”